The Vellore Sepoy Revolt of 1806

S. Balakrishnan

Indian history and present day politics is Delhicentric/north India centric. A classic example is the 1857 sepoy revolution which is touted as the first war of Indian independence. Because, some fifty years before in 1806 itselftook place the Sepoy Revolt in Vellore, Tamil Nadu, the first organised violent uprising against the British East India Company.

In the words of Lt. Col. E.G. Phythian-Adams who authored “Madras Infantry 1748-1943” (published in 1943) – The serious outbreak of mutiny by the 2/23rd and part of the 1stM.N.I. (Madras Native Infantry) at Vellore, where the family members of Tipu Sultan had been interned, was caused by the very injudicious introduction of a new pattern of turban and by certain regulations whichthe sepoys considered as infringement on their caste. To what extent the rising was instigated by the Mysore Princes (Tipu’s sons) will perhaps never be known, but they were certainly privy to it and determined to profit by any success which it might achieve. (Tipu Sultan of Mysore had been defeated and killed in 1799.) Warnings that all were not well were unheeded, and at 2.30 a.m. on the morning of 10th July 1806, the sepoys made an almost simultaneous attack on British guards, British barracks and officers’ quarters inside the Vellore fort. Most of the officers and British soldiers were killed before they could recover from the surprise. But a small British party (of about 60 men) managed to fight its way on to the ramparts and pull down the Mysore flag hoisted by the mutineers; the party established itself above the main gateway.

Meanwhile, Col. Gillespie, who was stationed at Arcot (some 18 miles away), learning of the outbreak, set out immediately with a squadron of the 19th Dragoons and the 7th Madras Cavalry. On his arrival, Col. Gillespie was drawn up by a rope into the rampart where his presence encouraged the men above the gateway who, being without ammunition, had to trust their bayonets alone. Not long after the galloperguns arrived and the gate was blown open, the Dragoons, handsomely supported by the Madras Cavalry, charged into the fort and inflicted dire retribution on the mutineers, of whom upwards of 350 were killed on the spot,while a number were taken in different parts of the countryside within the next few days. Five of the Mysore Princes’ retainers were sentenced to either death or long terms of imprisonment while the Princes themselves were sent to Calcutta, their complicity not having been established to such a degree as to warrant more extreme measures. The obnoxious orders regarding dress were rescinded and theGovernor ofMadras, William Bentinck, and the Commander-in-Chief of Madras Army, John Craddock,with his Adjutant-General were removed from their respective offices by orders of the Court of Directors. The 1st and 23rd Regiments were struck off the strength of the army and their place was supplied by two new regiments numbered the 24th and 25th.”

The Vellore Mutiny of 1806ended thus within a day, perhaps sowing the seed for the 1857 revolt. So ruthless was the punishment that in 1857 when the revolt broke out in north India, there was no murmur down south in the Madras Regiment.Tipu’s sons belied the expectations and were reluctant to take charge when the revolt climaxed, despite Tipu's second son FatehHyder being declared king.Ten years later in 1817, the Paika Rebellion of Odisha, also called the PaikaBidroha, broke out.

                The change in dress code of the Indian soldiers of the British army promulgated inNov. 1805 required them to remove caste/religious marks, earrings and beards (of Muslim soldiers), to trim the moustache, and to wear the new round hat with leather embellishments, instead of the turban.Adding insult to the injury, this round European hat resembled the one worn by the newly converted Indian Christians. These changes insulted the sentiments of both the Hindu and Muslim Indian soldiers of the East India Company.The simmering resentment drew the attention of British officers and in May 1806the suspectsepoys were sent to Fort Saint George in Madras (Chennai). Two of them – a Hindu and a Muslim – were given 90 lashes each and dismissed from the army. Nineteen others were sentenced to 50 lashes each but were pardoned upon seeking pardon.

This perhaps further instigated the Indian soldiers. In the pretext of gathering for the marriage of one of Tipu Sultan's daughters scheduled on 9 July, they grouped at Vellore fort. Further, for the field-day planned on 10th July for the Madras units, most of the sepoys slept within the fort for quick assembling at dawn. Thus a 1,500-strong Indian garrison was at the fort to take part in the uprising that began at 2.30 A.M. on 10th July 1806. Fourteen officers, including commander of the fort, Col. St. John Fancourt, and 115 men of the 69th Regiment were killed, most of them in their sleep. On the Indian sepoys’ side, around 800 were martyred (during fight and summary execution); after trial, a few more were blown away from guns, hanged, shot dead and transported. English poet Sir Henry Newbolt's poem "Gillespie" is an account of the events of the Vellore mutiny.

My long felt desire to visit Vellore to pay homage to the martyrs came true in the winter of 2018, as Vellore is notorious for extreme heat. The Vellore fort in all probability might have been built during the rule of Chinna  BommiNayak (1526 to 1595A.D.) of the Nayak dynasty. The fort is one of the most perfect specimens of military architecture in South India, surrounded by a deep moat.It is located in the heart of Vellore covering an area of 133 acres.Government offices occupy most of the buildings; wish there was a guide.

The much delayed recognition for this Vellore Sepoy Mutiny came 200 years later in 2006 when a stamp was released; this was achieved because Tamil Nadu’s DMK party was in coalition with Congress and DMK’sDayanidhiMaran was the Communications Minister. Even much before this 1806 revolution was the fiery VeerapandiaKattabomman, a polygar/chieftain, who was hanged in 1799 by the British, and VeluNachiyar (reign 1780-1790), the first queen to fight the British, and not LaxmiBai, Jhansi rani, as claimed.

To reiterate, the Vellore Sepoy Revolution of 1806, though snuffed out within a day, was the beginning of the end of British rule in India.